×

Help us help you

If we have helped you become a better cook, please become a Pitmaster Club member and help us become a better website. Benefits for members include:

(1) Seminars with famous Pitmaster Professors
(2) Access to The Pit forum and scores of new friends
(3) An expanded Temperature Guide Magnet that selles for $9.95
(4) Gold Medal Giveaways of free grills and smokers
(5) Support for Operation BBQ Relief

Learn more about the Pitmaster Club

Not ready to subscribe yet? Return to AmazingRibs.com

AmazingRibs.com BBQ Logo

The Science of Shrimp

There are many types of shrimp and prawns, and in the wild they are among the most important animals in the ocean food chain. Fish love them, whales love them, and humans love them.

Related to lobster, crawfish, and crabs, there are at least half a dozen common varieties harvested for food, and some are even farmed. Best of all, they don't require much prep, and they cook quickly. You can boil them if you wish, but you know they are better grilled!

Buying shrimp

As with so many other seafoods, shrimp caught and flash frozen at sea or on the docks will usually be better than raw shrimp shipped cross country and left sitting in the grocery store for days. Flash freezing at very low temps keeps the ice crystals small so they don't destroy as many cell walls as slow frozen shrimp. This prevents moisture loss. Just defrost frozen shrimp in the fridge.

Shrimp have no bones. They have an outer shell called an exoskeleton made from a sturdy variety of compounds. For culinary purposes, shrimp has four parts: (1) The head and legs which go all the way back to the end of the large solid shell called the carapace, (2) the abdomen, which is the good stuff, (3) the swimmerets, and (4) the tail.

Shrimp come in three forms: (1) Whole, (2) headless with shell, swimmerets, and tail attached, and (3) head, shell, swimmerets, and tail removed.

And they come in many sizes. "Jumbo shrimp" is among the goofiest terms in the culinary world. Shrimp are sold by the pound, and headless shrimp are measured by the number of shrimp per pound. Shrimp labeled 31/35 means there are 31 to 35 per pound and should be called medium but are sometimes called large. The size names can vary from merchant to merchant sometimes, and tend to be inflated like condom sizes. 16/20 are called jumbo, but I consider them large. U-12 and U-10, meaning under 12 or under 10 per pound, are called colossal or super colossal. For this reason, better recipes give you the count per pound rather than a size name.

All this reminds me of the time feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem testified before Congress on birth control and advocating that the smallest condom size be "large" saying that she just couldn't envision men asking a pharmicist for a small.

Similarly, I recommend large shrimp. Small shrimp can be tedious to clean. Large shrimp are easier. Small shrimp are cooked through before they get dark on the outside. Large shrimp take longer and benefit from dark grill marks. Small shrimp are easy to overcook. Large shrimp are easier to monitor and cook properly. I recommend large shrimp, 16/20 or larger.

Leave the shell on, remove the head and vein

Shrimp shells protect the delicate meat from overcooking and, because they contain chitin (pronounced KITE-in), which is rich in sugars, they contribute flavor to the meat. If you marinate shell-on shrimp, the shell blocks much of the marinade from reaching the abdomen meat, and shrimp meat absorbs more marinade than almost any other meat. If there are a lot of spices, herbs, or marinade on the outside of the shells, however, they get on your fingers and then on the meat as you eat. Your fingers become like brushes, a part of the seasoning process.

shrimp anatomy

I recommend cooking shell on, but this is problematic because the digestive tract, called the vein for some odd reason, sometimes contains grit, and many people find it unappetizing. You can leave the shell on and still remove the vein, thus exposing more meat to seasoning or marinade, and this is the best of all worlds.

Some people even eat the shells, swimmerets, and tails if they are soft enough. They are tasty, covered with seasonings, smoke from the grill, and laten with nutrients. This can be dangerous because there is a pointy tip called the telson between the two fins on the tail. If you are a shell eater, snip off the point of the telson before cooking so it won't lodge in your throat and interrupt dinner with a trip to the emergency room.

Start by breaking off the heads at the point where the large solid shell, called the carapace, meets the smaller segmented shell sections of the abdomen. Then rip off the legs. The vein runs along the convex side, the back of the abdomen. Sometimes it is hard to see, especially if the shrimp hadn't eaten much before being killed. Sometimes it is black when filled. With a scissors cut the shell all along the center of the back opposite the legs all the way to the tail. With a sharp paring knife, cut through the flesh until you see the vein. Cut from the head end all the way to the tail. When the vein is exposed, slip the tip of your knife under it and gently lift. It should all come out in one piece. If it breaks, repeat the action. Now rinse and pat them dry.

Shell on is best for sit down affairs on picnic tables covered with newspaper. It is sloppy and not a good idea for those formal black tie and ball gown affairs you like to throw. For these, I recommend shelled and cleaned.

Cleaning shrimp

You can buy shrimp that are already cleaned, with heads, swimmerets, shells, veins, and tails removed, but they cost more because this can only be done by hand. Doing it yourself is easy.

Rip the head off and then hook the edge of the shell at the fat end with your thumb. The whole shell should come right off, legs and all. If you wish, leave the tails on. They make nice handles when eaten with your fingers or when dunking in sauce or melted butter. For stand-up cocktail parties, remove the tails so people don't have to figure out what to do with them after they eat the shrimp.

Some recipes call for butterflied shrimp. After you remove the vein, just extend the cut you made a little deeper, but not all the way and spread the two halves open.

When you're done, rinse the shrimp to remove any sand or shell.

Grilling shrimp

Preheat your grill to about 325°F in the direct zone. Brush the shrimp with vegetable oil or melted butter to prevent sticking. Grill about three to four minutes on each side depending on the thickness of the shrimp. Cook until the shrimp turns bright pink on the outside and pearly white in the center and they get some grill marks. Be careful not to overcook shrimp!

Save the heads, shells, and tails

If you wish, you can save the heads, shells, and tails and boil them to make shrimp stock. Start by sautéing them in butter until they turn pink. The oils in butter extract flavor. Then cover with 2" or so of water and simmer for a few hours reducing the volume. Taste until it is the strength you want. Then season with salt, herbs, whatever. You'll then have a rich shrimp flavored buttery stock that you can use as a base for sauces or soups or for boiling rice or couscous.

This page was revised

Return to top

Please read this before posting a comment or question

grouchy?1) Please use the table of contents or the search box at the top of every page before you ask for help, then please post your question on the appropriate page.

2) Please tell us everything we need to know to answer your question such as the type of cooker and thermometer you are using. Dial thermometers are often off by as much as 50°F so if you are not using a good digital thermometer we probably can't help you. Please read this article about thermometers.

3) If you post a photo, wait a minute for a thumbnail to appear. It will happen even if you don't see it happen.

4) Click here to learn more about our comment system and our privacy promise. Remember, your login info for comments is probably different from your Pitmaster Club login info if you are a member.

Return to top

Return to top

LeaderDog.org Ad on BBQ site

About this website. AmazingRibs.com is all about the science of barbecue, grilling, and outdoor cooking, with great BBQ recipes, tips on technique, mythbusting, and unbiased equipment reviews. Learn how to set up your grills and smokers properly, the thermodynamics of what happens when heat hits meat, and how to cook great food outdoors. There are also buying guides to barbeque smokers, grills, accessories, and thermometers, as well as hundreds of excellent tested recipes including all the classics: Baby back ribs, pulled pork, Texas brisket, burgers, chicken, smoked turkey, lamb, steaks, chili, barbecue sauces, spice rubs, and side dishes, with the world's best all edited by Meathead Goldwyn.

Brought to you by readers like you who support us with their membership in our Pitmaster Club. Click here to learn more about benefits to membership.

Advertising. AmazingRibs.com is by far the most popular barbecue website in the world, still growing rapidly, and one of the 25 most popular food websites in the US according to comScore, Quantcast, Compete, and Alexa. Click here for analytics and advertising info.

© Copyright 2005 - 2015 by AmazingRibs.com. All text, recipes, photos, and computer code are owned by AmazingRibs.com and fully protected by US copyright law unless otherwise noted (some photos of commercial products such as grills were provided by the manufacturers and are under their copyright). This means that it is a Federal crime to copy and publish or distribute anything on this website without permission. But we're easy! We usually grant permission and don't charge a fee. To get reprint rights, just click here. You do not need permission to link to this website.